BERRYVILLE — Two members of Berryville Town Council on Tuesday criticized Mayor Patricia Dickinson over comments she made in a recent letter to the editor of The Winchester Star.
Dickinson did not respond to their remarks.
Her letter, published on June 20, concerned a Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request she submitted to the town to get information on the status of a plaque honoring Clarke County residents chosen as Veterans of the Year. She asserted in the letter that the town’s process for handling FOIA requests is “inefficient, fiscally irresponsible, and not compliant with the law.”
In addition to criticizing the newspaper’s coverage of the issue, Dickinson wrote in her letter that the town’s FOIA response process is inefficient “because not all of the information requested is provided.” She wrote that the process is fiscally irresponsible “because the highest paid person on staff (the town manager) is the one performing the administrative work.” The process is not compliant with the law, she continued, because the town legally must “designate and publicly identify one or more Freedom of Information Act officers ... whose responsibility is to serve as a point of contact for members of the public in requesting public records and to coordinate the public body’s compliance.”
Town Manager Keith Dalton previously said he did not withhold from Dickinson any information he thought was relevant to her request, and he would have provided her any information she wanted, as long as he had it to provide.
“The process is not inefficient,” town Recorder Jay Arnold told Dickinson during Tuesday night’s council meeting. “You knew, when you sent the FOIA (request) in, we didn’t have a clerk” to respond to it.
Arnold mentioned that the town clerk traditionally has been Berryville’s designated FOIA officer.
When Dickinson submitted her request, the previous clerk, Mia Jackson, had resigned. A new clerk, Paul Culp, was hired after the request was submitted.
Because it’s a small town with only a few employees, “we had no choice” but to let Dalton respond to the request, Arnold told Dickinson.
“Who’d you think was going to do this?” he asked her.
“I’m not going to be interrogated on this,” Dickinson tersely replied, adding that she considers matters involving her FOIA request to be finished. She immediately moved the meeting on to the next agenda item.
Arnold made his remarks following a time allotted for him at regular monthly council meetings to comment on matters pertaining to his responsibilities, which are similar to those of the vice mayor in many towns and cities.
During his comments on Dickinson’s FOIA request, Arnold said he believes the town manager should be involved in responding to such requests — along with the clerk — to ensure that the requester gets accurate information.
Council members have said that typically when they need information on local matters, they simply ask town administrators for it and it’s provided to them.
“Town Council is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the people,” Dickinson’s letter continued. “While it may baffle town council members that I would submit a FOIA request, it baffles me that they are not asking questions or seeking information. What good does it do to be the eyes and ears of the people if you refuse to hear and won’t look?”
Arnold said those statements are inaccurate.
At the end of the meeting, Councilwoman Donna Marie McDonald brought up Dickinson’s letter again, but her remarks were brief. Referring to the mayor’s assertion that the council was not being the public’s eyes and ears, she said “I felt a little embarrassed over that. It made us sound like ... we weren’t doing our jobs.”